Brass band players are familiar with the contest season scenario and some people love musical competitions while others loathe it. Is there really any musical validity in competing and relying on the opinions of the chosen adjudicators?
There are many positives to music competitions and contesting and they can really help to focus a group of musicians on ensuring a real sense of security and accuracy in performance.
A contest for a brass band or a competition for a wind band can give the performers a chance to rise to a sense of occasion and push themselves to achieve more. Rehearsals can start to deal with the nitty-gritty of ensemble, accuracy, intonation and musical interpretation in a more detailed way than for a concert.
A competition or contest will normally only involve a single piece or a short programme whereas a concert may well have a large number of different items.
Detailed work on a singular piece can help an ensemble really gel and the members of the group can really learn about and understand how each other work. This second sense can help when certain phrases or moments don’t quite go to plan and ensure that everyone is aware of the role that they play individually and as part of an ensemble.
However, this can sometimes go a little bit wrong. In the brass band fraternity it is often possible to have individuals griping about the judges decisions, and either have a return journey on a band bus that is a lively party or like a wake. The following rehearsals can sometimes turn into an extended debrief where players are berated for their personal shortcomings or hailed as heroes.
Some bands, in their quest to reach the top, will cancel or not take any other concerts or bookings near important contest dates and spend months working on just a single piece, leading to some of the band members to feel bored, disengaged or frustrated.
When the desired result or ranking doesn’t quite get them where they feel they should be bands often feel deflated, feel wronged or lose faith in the whole system.
This then sparks debates about whether or not it is necessary to have closed adjudication, where judges are placed in a visually isolated booth to ensure that there is no bias or unfair marking. There is indeed the question as to whether or not the judges should mark stage presentation, or just the performance of the actual music. Then there is the discussion about which players have transferred from different bands to help others’ out and so on.
To be honest, it seems a little better in the Wind Band world with the policy of placing winners, highly commended and commended positions.
So amongst all of the jostling and angst is there truly a musical point to it all, and has this been lost on some?
My personal feeling is that the tradition of band contesting, competitions and solo events rests entirely at the hands of the ethos and direction of the individual groups that participate.
As long as the music remains the focus, and achieving accuracy of performance and, more importantly, an interpretation with a unified sense of understanding and panache then all should be well. When the focus turns to glory hunting or achieving a particular award or recognition, then things seem to become exceptionally sour.
Every musical director and performer will have their own thoughts and views on how to prepare for contests and competitions, and this will depend entirely on the band or individual at a particular time or place.
When the question is:
What am I going to do to make sure that the band I conduct wins?
How can our performance deliver the best musical outcome?
Competing is only really worthwhile when the music is valued, understood and is the real focus. Yes, it is great to win and can sometimes be a really important result, but if winning is the only real desire then maybe, just maybe, it’s time to call it a day…